Did the Cleveland Indians get the message?
This is their year to be the American League Central's leading team, taking their turn in a rotation that in recent years has included the Tigers, White Sox and Twins. They can't seem, however, to get out of their own way and let it happen.
If the Indians had kept playing the way they did before the All-Star break, they would be taking a 6½-game lead into this week's three-game series against the skidding Tigers at Detroit's Comerica Park. This would be a chance to deal a death blow to Detroit, which is showing all the signs of PPS (Post Pennant Syndrome).
Instead, even unflappable manager Eric Wedge has been flapped. His Cleveland team greeted his new lifetime contract (actually an extension that takes him through 2010) with a 16-19 start to the second half that has created some new math in the AL playoff race.
Because the Yankees were running through starting pitchers like they were the Washington Nationals, it seemed a safe assumption that the wild card would come from the deep Central. Cleveland, Detroit and Minnesota all seemed good candidates to win 90-plus games, maybe even 95-plus. But the Yankees' awakening and the continued good play of the Mariners have refocused attention on the division race.
The Indians and Tigers meet six more times this season, with only one series (Sept. 17-19 in Cleveland) remaining after this one. The team that survives will be the one that does the best job dealing with its scar tissue.
For Cleveland, the damage is psychological.
The Indians have a talented roster, but they haven't reached the postseason with it. Five of the nine regulars and two-fifths of the starting rotation (three-fifths if you count lefty Cliff Lee, who was pitching so badly he was shipped to Triple-A last month) were around for the 1-6 collapse in 2005, which caused them to miss the playoffs after their 40-13 run in August and September.
For Detroit, the damage is physical.
Like the White Sox last year, their pitching staff is showing the strain caused by a run to the World Series. The staff ERA has jumped from a league-best 3.84 to 4.73, which ranks 11th. The cause is twofold: the injuries that have sidelined 42-year-old staff leader Kenny Rogers and set-up man extraordinaire Joel Zumaya, and a drop in effectiveness by Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and much of the bullpen, including 39-year-old closer Todd Jones.
Zumaya returns for the Indians series after making three rehab outings in the minors. He will be greeted like a savior when he makes his first jog across the outfield on the way to the mound, but no one really knows whether he'll be his old self after missing more than half of the season with a ruptured tendon in his index finger.
There's a violence in his pitching motion and the 100-mph fastball and snapdragon curve it produces. Scouts are curious about whether he can command the strike zone with quality pitches after such a stop-and-start season.
"I'm not going to use [Zumaya] as a long man,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said on Sunday in New York, where Detroit lost for the third time in four games against the Yankees. "Obviously he's coming back because he's ready to pitch, and if he's ready to pitch, I'm going to put him in there.''
Zumaya is only one piece of the puzzle for the Tigers, who are suddenly a team in transition.
They made a bold call on Friday, promoting 20-year-old outfielder Cameron Maybin -- a kid with braces, for goodness' sake -- to replace Craig Monroe, who was discarded because he wasn't hitting home runs at the same pace he did a year ago. They are so dissatisfied with shortstop Carlos Guillen's fielding that they have tried for weeks to add Jack Wilson in a trade, even though adding Wilson would mean switching Guillen to first base, where Sean Casey has been a contributor. And Leyland said Sunday that third baseman Brandon Inge, a rock on the 2006 team, would get some time off to try to get himself together.
Inge is hitting .242, making this the third year in a row his average has dropped, and his slugging percentage (.389) is the worst it's been since 2003, when he was still a catcher. He has 127 strikeouts, only one fewer than his 2006 total, and he epitomizes the frustration that has spread through the Tigers during a stretch in which they have gone 8-19.
Inge told John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press that he was "getting pitched like I'm Babe Ruth.'' It's unlikely that is how he is being pitched, but that's how a hitter feels when he's pressing, and right now this is an organization that's pressing.
General manager Dave Dombrowski says Maybin is the best young player he's ever seen. That's why he felt the time was right to throw him into this mix even though Maybin had played only six games above Class A.
Maybin homered off Roger Clemens on Saturday but finished the series in New York 2-for-11 with four strikeouts. He also looked uncomfortable in left field; he played there because Curtis Granderson is entrenched in center.
No one is going to be under closer inspection in this week's series than Maybin, although Detroit fans may have to wait until Wednesday to get their first long look at him. Leyland doesn't plan to start him Tuesday, when the Indians are going with Fausto Carmona, who has suddenly supplanted C.C. Sabathia as their toughest starting pitcher.
With Carmona, Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook scheduled to start for Cleveland (the Tigers will start Jair Jurrjens, Justin Verlander and Robertson), the Indians' focus is to play low-scoring games. That's because their lineup is badly underproducing, averaging 4.1 runs per game in the second half, which ranks 13th in the American League. They enter the Detroit series having produced five-plus runs only three times in their last 14 games.
More than any lift from taking two of three against Tampa Bay, that's the trend they carry with them. The Indians are hitting .254 in the second half, taking the season average down to .267 -- 19 points less than Detroit and seventh in the AL. These are hitters in need of a breakout series.
Travis Hafner, signed to a four-year, $57 million extension over the All-Star break, is hitting .226 with four homers since then. Victor Martinez is at .252 with two homers; Casey Blake is at .230 with one homer. Kenny Lofton, acquired from Texas on July 28, has not provided a lift. He's hitting .254 and has scored only six runs in 19 games.
These guys have to dig deep. We've got some leaders out there, guys who have been here three or four years. It's time for some guys to step up.
Indians manager Eric Wedge
"I've been talking all year about how tough we are,'' an exasperated Wedge said at one point last week. "It's easy to be tough when you're winning. Now is the time when we have to toughen up. Enough's enough. Now we're going to see how tough we are. We'll see.''
Wedge practically called out Hafner, Martinez and Blake by name.
"These guys have to dig deep,'' he said, without naming names. "We've got some leaders out there, guys who have been here three or four years. It's time for some guys to step up.''
Closer Joe Borowski just got here. He signed with the Indians last winter after Philadelphia questioned the results of his physical. He has been a godsend, for the most part, but has blown two of his last five save chances, leading to losses against Tampa Bay on Sunday and against the White Sox on Aug. 8. He's been scored on in four of his last six outings -- just another element adding suspense to the series at Comerica Park.
"Do we have leaders in that clubhouse?'' Wedge asks. "I don't know. We're going to find out. Because we're in the trenches right now.''
Forgive Wedge for his battlefield metaphor. He is in the fight of his baseball life.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).